By Johanna Ferreira
I remember coffee being a big deal growing up. I had my first cafecito con leche (coffee with milk) before I even stepped foot in Kindergarten. My mom says when I first started talking that I would refer to it as “chello.” Juan Luis Guerra’s song’s Ojalá Que Llueva Café (I Hope it Rains Coffee) was constantly playing in my house and I learned how to use a greca (stovetop espresso maker) by the time I was tall enough to reach the stove. But for Dominicans, coffee doesn’t just end as a drink. We also very much incorporate it in our beauty routines and one of our most sacred of them all is our hair growth remedy.
I’ve spent a lot of Saturdays in this lifetime in Dominican hair salons. And I remember often seeing a bottle of apple cider vinegar and a tin can of coffee in the back by the salon sinks. The vinegar was often used as a rinse to treat dry scalp or dandruff. I saw this decades before it ever became a trend. The coffee was often brewed (usually in a coffee cloth strainer), cooled, and then used as a treatment for clients struggling with hair loss. Whenever I’d hear a relative or family friend complain about postpartum hair loss, there would always be someone suggesting “un tratamiento de café (a coffee treatment).”
“Using coffee to stimulate hair growth and to restore shine is still very widely used [in the Dominican Republic],” says Milta Lee, a Dominican-American birth and postpartum doula who makes her own herbal beauty products, inspired by the Dominican beauty remedies she grew up with. “Coffee is naturally a powerful antioxidant. The antioxidants fight all the damaging effects of free radicals and help to improve the hair growth by maintaining the collagen in the hair follicles. Caffeine, a natural stimulant, is one of the main constituents that make up coffee. The caffeine in coffee increases the blood circulation in the scalp and extends the life cycle of hair follicles.”
Many Dominican-American women who grew up using these remedies have in recent years found themselves reclaiming them to nurture and care for their hair today, including Lulu Cordero, the founder of Bomba Curls. In fact, the Bomba Curls Forbidden Hair Oil is inspired by the ancestral Dominican coffee hair remedy. It’s formulated with coffee and a beautiful blend of nourishing oils to promote maximum healthy hair growth.
“I suffered a specific type of damage to my hair called traction alopecia — it was pretty severe. My hairline was extremely sparse and I had significant breakage as well. My mother suggested that I turn to coffee to help recover my hairline..."
"She said back in the Dominican Republic, women have been using coffee to promote strong, healthy hair growth for generations — which sent me down a journey towards creating the ultimate natural hair formulas and my first product, a coffee based hair oil was born,” says Cordero. “I started using my coffee oil consistently and truly made it a part of my daily hair regimen. My hair didn’t just recover— it began to thrive.”
Not only does caffeine help promote hair growth, but a 2007 laboratory study found that it also helps block the effects of DHT in male hair follicles, as well as stimulating hair shaft elongation, which can result in thicker hair.
Lee loves resorting to her abuela’s (grandma’s) Dominican coffee hair growth remedy whenever her hair is in need of some serious nourishment and strengthening. Her grandmother would normally brew a strong coffee (about 2-4 cups worth depending on the hair’s length) and then once the coffee cooled she’d pour it onto the hair. Then she’d apply about 1/4 cup of olive oil to the hair and leave the coffee and olive oil mixture on for 30 minutes before shampooing out.
“This is known to provide your hair with strength and to prevent excess shedding to stimulate your scalp and to seal in moisture and shine. It even darkens grays,” Lee adds.
But Lee also loves using coffee in her home-made scalp scrubs. She takes 1/4 cup of grounded coffee beans and mixes it with 1/4 cup of granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon of coconut oil, 1 teaspoon of honey, and then adds 5-10 drops of her preferred essential oil. She then divides her hair into 4 sections and uses a spray bottle to dampen each section. Then she gently massages the scrub into her scalp using her fingertips for around 60 seconds at a time. Lastly, she covers her hair with a plastic cap and leaves the scrub on for 30 minutes before rinsing out.
Regardless of which method you choose, this ancestral coffee remedy is certainly worth trying. Dominican women have been swearing by this hair growth potion for centuries. The secret to healthy hair literally lies in our cafecito. Lee believes that the reclamation of beauty remedies like the Dominican coffee hair growth remedy is just one of the many ways women of color are reclaiming ancestral wisdom and practices. In recent years, Black and brown women have leaned into their roots to find healing and decolonize their lifestyles, all while embracing their heritage.
“I think women are reclaiming herbal remedies as a way to have ancestral connections and commune more with nature,” says chef, herbal alchemist and self-care advocate Natalie Cruz. “Women are taking their health and wellness into their own hands in a way that is more sustainable and natural than ever before. We are creating better standards for ourselves by questioning what we put in and on our bodies. Homemade remedies allow us to nourish ourselves in natural ways that give us control and agency of our bodies that the beauty industry simply cannot.”
“I see a shift in interest towards herbs, plant medicine, natural remedies, and DIYs — myself included,” Lee says. “It makes me feel like I’m back home in the Dominican Republic with my aunts and neighbors with the perfect remedy for a bad rash on my leg. Our ancestors used to heal themselves, family members and their fellow villagers. They set the foundation for us, when we tap in we continue to keep it alive.”